There’s usually a secondary angle waiting in the wings when NASCAR runs its 26th and final regular-season Cup Series race each year. Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway was no exception.
The winner—in this case, Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney—rightfully gets the lion’s share of attention. But close behind is the driver or drivers who breathlessly and joyously advance into the upcoming 10-race playoff field.
Blaney emerged from another superspeedway demolition derby with his third Cup victory this year, his second straight after Michigan six days ago. Neither time nor space—right now, anyway—permits a full recounting of the series of late-race accidents that involved most of the 40 starters to some extent. Certainly, NASCAR’s PR machine will work overtime Monday culling spectacular TV footage to use for playoff promotions.
Unlike some years, all but one of the 16 playoff spots were decided before Saturday night’s high-speed carnage. Ironically, the two drivers most concerned with that lone remaining spot were Richard Childress Racing teammates Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon … who happens to be the team-owner’s grandson.
When the smoke cleared from the last multi-car crash—almost literally—Reddick had advanced as the 16th seed in the 10-race “tournament” that begins next weekend at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. To review: the championship field of 16 is reduced to 12 drivers after Round 1, to eight drivers after Round 2, then to the final after Round 3. Those four will decide the Cup Series championship among themselves in the Nov. 7 season-finale in Phoenix. (Regardless of their finish relative to the rest of the field, the highest finisher among them is the champ).
Round 1 is Darlington, then Richmond, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee on consecutive weekends. Round Two includes Las Vegas, Nevada, Talladega, Alabama, and the road course at Charlotte, North Carolina. Round Three is at Fort Worth, Texas, Kansas City, and Martinsville, Virginia. After 18 consecutive years at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR moved its championship race to Phoenix last year.
Even though Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick started Saturday night’s 160-lap, 400-miler winless this year—they had combined for 13 by now last year—they were already assured of spots. A dozen or so drivers were technically eligible to advance with a victory, but not many series-watchers expected a new winner to take the spot.
BIG CRASH. Tyler Reddick involved!
Huge implications for the #NASCARPlayoffs with less than 15 laps remaining!
NBC Sports App pic.twitter.com/P39PGsZ04w
Reddick and Dillon were separated by 25 points, with Dillon the only other driver who could advance by points. Both ran well much of the night, but had issues toward the end that briefly brought them even closer together. Reddick was in a backstretch melee that damaged his Chevrolet’s front end and Dillon’s Chevy had late-race electrical problems. When all was said and done, Dillon limped home 18th after being in the last multi-car accident, the one on the last lap after Blaney had taken the white flag. Reddick somehow managed to finish six, even with his car smoking and not exactly up to speed.
Officially, Blaney won under caution after the Turns 3-4 accident on the last lap. Chris Buescher was second, Bubba Wallace was third, Ryan Newman fourth, and Ryan Preece fifth. Each would have advanced into the playoffs with a victory. Reddick, Justin Haley (the afternoon’s Xfinity race winner, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, and B.J. McLeod rounded out the top-10.
The playoff field is: Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, William Byron, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Blaney, Bowman, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola, Harvick, Hamlin, and Reddick.
As for the Xfinity Series…
• Earlier on Saturday, in a continuation of Friday night’s rain-interrupted WAWA Xfinity 250, Haley nipped Kaulig Racing teammate A.J. Allmendinger in a photo-finish. JR Motorsports driver Justin Allgaier was third, then Kaulig driver Jeb Burton, and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Hemric.
Allmendinger, sixth-place Bell, and JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson dominated the 100-lap, 250-miler. Allmendinger led five times for 29 laps, Bell led twice for 23, and Gragson led three times for 16. Haley led only twice for five laps, including the last one by a foot or so (officially 0.023 seconds) over Allmendinger. He eased just ahead thanks to a high-line push from Hemric coming for the checkered.
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Field
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